Bocce Cafe isn't the best Italian restaurant in North Beach, nor is it the second best, the third, or even the fourth. It isn't the most storied eatery, although it does have a history, having taken over the Old Spaghetti Factory — a psychedelic, low-budget, bohemian cabaret that, in the 1950s, opened in the footprint of (what else?) an old spaghetti factory. Bocce isn't the fanciest place, nor the most romantic, neither the most expensive, nor the cheapest. It isn't the swankest, nor the seediest, and yet, somehow, Bocce manages to stand out despite its utter lack of a defining superlative.
Perhaps this is because, at Bocce, you get the feeling anything can happen. Your long-lost love might be nibbling ravioli at the next table, the special magnetism that first seduced you still unbearably intense. Among the good citizens pontificating at the bar in heated tones, one might be your estranged father, or your errant waiter, or the above-mentioned long-lost love, or someone you don't love at all but will in a few minutes, because Bocce is a neighborhood destination. It is the kind of place where no meal is finished until you cry out, “Bocce!,” if only because it is a pleasurable word to repeat; a place where you could stand atop your chair and belt out an operetta and the staff wouldn't stop you (or, if they did stop you, it would probably take longer than at other restaurants).
Needless to say, I like Bocce, as does my friend Michelle. The last time we visited, our waiter looked as if his very heart would split in two when she asked if she could substitute capellini for fettuccine: How could she even dream that he wouldn't oblige? Then, when I handed my ticket to the valet, I was told with a straight face that, so sorry, there were no more cars, mine must have been given to someone else, good night. In other words, they're a real lively bunch down at Bocce.
To get in the spirit of things, we decided to order six entrees for the two of us when we returned, just to see if anyone would object. We arrived on a Wednesday, which isn't the best night of the week to visit North Beach, but is by no means the worst one, either. The peculiar giddiness that marked our first visit swept over us immediately as we navigated a dark, garden-enclosed walkway suffused with disco and stepped into the warm, rustic heart of Bocce itself. A piano soundtrack tinkled as we breathed the rich smells of Italy; miracles seemed poised to flutter down from the rafters.
Bocce's wine list is far from the most impressive I've come across, though it did yield a very smooth Antinori Classico Riserva ($28). I've also seen bigger wineglasses — a serious faux pas, as there is simply no excuse for poor stemware. But I forgave anyway, since I was succumbing to a special, Bocce-induced euphoria as our waiter sidled up and took our order. We selected one … two … three appetizers should be enough. And then entrees: one … two … three (could he recommend a good pizza?) … four … five … six. Our waiter stopped writing, looked us over. A smile glimmered in his eyes, then spread across his face, then spread to my face, then to Michelle's, then bummed a fiver and headed out the door for a negroni ($3.75) at Gino and Carlo. I cracked, told him we forgot to buy groceries that week, but of course it didn't matter: He finished taking our order, disappeared into the kitchen, and, within 15 seconds, returned with the appetizers, as if he'd known what we wanted all along.
We began with carpaccio ($5.95), a traditional plate of paper-thin raw beef topped with lemon, capers, olive oil, and shaved Parmesan. Though decent, the carpaccio was eclipsed by the mozzarella caprese ($6.95): whole moons of vine-ripened tomato, topped with mozzarella, olive oil, oregano, and fresh basil. The tomato-topped bruschetta ($3.25) proved the most exciting of the three, however, since it was so undeniably ugly the toasted garlic bread resembled sickly, midget bananas. Ever fearless, we ate it anyway, and were pleasantly surprised: The bread was warm and crisp, the tomatoes chilled and piquant, the whole experience enhanced by terror confronted and overcome.
Some might describe Bocce as “cheap” Italian — for example, the house special ($6.95) lets you combine one of five different pastas (fettuccine, linguine, penne, spaghetti, or rigatoni) with 11 traditional sauces (pesto, carbonara, you get the picture). Beyond that, the menu is a large and potentially hazardous catalog of classic Italian dishes that range from just-below-decent to somewhere-near-splendid. Some entrees confuse, such as the mezzelune alla spinaci (half-moons of spinach pasta stuffed with ricotta, $10.95): Michelle felt it was a bit goaty, while I would have preferred more goat, even though no goats were supposed to be involved. Some disappoint, such as our tiny pizza with salami and olives ($9.95), while others merely exist, like the capellini pomodoro ($7.95) with tomatoes, basil, and garlic, which was filling, and that was about it.
Wiser selections can be found among the secondi. The risotto pescatore ($14.95) — a generous heap of stock-infused arborio ringed with clams and mussels — proved worthwhile, its depths revealing prawns, salmon, and calamari to the probing fork. Michelle was drawn to the prawns bordelaise ($14.95) — a modestly sized pocket of spaghetti, ringed with jumbo shrimp, then bathed in a white wine and garlic sauce.
Or, if you feel like living a little, you can skip the above and head straight for the dish that won my heart in the first place, San Francisco's own addition to the great gallery of Italian cuisine, your friend and mine, cioppino ($16.95). At Bocce, cioppino tends to resemble a religious rite. It begins with a ladle, a crab cracker, a bowl of spaghetti, and a gleaming, 1-gallon copper pot. As it arrives, your fellow diners rear back. “What is that?” they inquire. The lid is raised, and the heavenly scents of marinara and the salty Pacific intermingle over your table. You lean forward, peer into this golden abyss; globs of olive oil dance upon a red sea. In goes the ladle. Whole crab legs appear; mussels mingle with clams, and calamari with shrimp and salmon, as if here, in your cioppino, all God's creatures can exist in peace. One by one, these jewels of the sea are coaxed out; the ladle dips again; broth is eased over pasta. It dips again, broth is sipped, and then it dips yet again, and a lone shrimp is lured to the surface, soon to be reunited with its brethren. It dips a last time, you drink. Satisfaction blossoms, and then it is done.
Unless, like Michelle, you order dessert — a very lovely tira- (our waiter disappeared into the kitchen, came back, and set it before her) -misu ($3.25), and a frothy white cappuccino ($2). Either of these would have been enhanced by a ladle of cioppino broth, but unfortunately I'd just run out.
We were beaming as we strolled to the valet stand, our stomachs heavier, our souls a bit lighter –the ultimate sign of a successful evening. Then I realized I'd forgotten something, cried out, “Bocce!,” and with that, we headed off into the night.